CAIR-Chicago hosted journalists Stephen Franklin and Rummana Hussain to share their experiences in the field. CAIR-Chicago’s interns were given an exclusive look into the world of news reporting in Muslim communities and in the Islamic world, and were introduced to a different perspective of Muslim portrayal in the media.
Franklin, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, and the Miami Herald, uses his experience in foreign correspondence to educate journalists on how to report on ethnic and religious communities that are marginalized in the press. A political science major, Franklin became interested in Islam and the Middle East while working for the Peace Corps in Turkey during the 1960s.
His experiences as a foreign correspondent ranged from dealing with Islamophobic bigots in the US to being captured by Sunni fighters in Lebanon in 1982. However, Franklin admitted if it wasn’t for his understanding of the culture and a willingness to keep an open mind, things would have turned for the worse.
According to Franklin, in order to best understand a foreign subject, one must have a grasp of the language and the local culture, citing numerous instances where his knowledge of both helped him immensely, even saving his life on occasion. He is now fluent in Turkish, Arabic, Spanish and Hebrew, and he believes his knowledge of languages has been one of his greatest advantages in covering international affairs.
“It shows you’re making an effort,” Franklin said. “Knowing any language opens doors for you.”
When asked on how to accurately portray Islam in the media, Franklin said there were four basic rules for covering Islam in the United States, starting with resisting the temptation to make Islam or Muslims seem mysterious because of their perceived foreignness. Likewise, journalists should stop feeling uncomfortable with new subjects, and should refrain from visiting a local “kabab store” to learn about Islam. Most of all, they need to draw differences from Muslim communities instead of lumping a diverse group together.
Due to his experiences in the Middle East and Islam’s inaccurate representation in the media, he made valuable contributions in Islam for Journalists, a how-to guide on reporting on Muslims in America. As a journalist in America, he’s grateful he can report freely without fear of repercussions, unlike his Arab counterparts. Therefore, he’s taken it upon himself to train reporters in his new role as a community media director for the Community Media Workshop, a non-profit in Chicago.
Hussain, a Muslim who identifies as an American-Indian, is a journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times. She often writes about her experiences as a Muslim in America post-9/11 through op-eds and personal stories, in addition to her usual Chicago beat.
Hussain gave her perspective on reporting on Islam and Muslims in the US, speaking from personal experience at the Chicago Sun-Times.
“People try to ‘otherize’ Muslims,” Hussain said. “So it’s important to have a diverse newsroom, particularly when there are complex issues to write about.”
She spoke at length about being able to juggle her distinct Indian, American, and Muslim identities, and her struggles with explaining to people that these are not mutually exclusive.
While she doesn’t specialize in reporting on foreign affairs, she felt there was a hunger to learn about Islam after 9/11, and it continues to this day. Her post-9/11 experiences compelled her to write op-eds about being Muslim in America, publishing her first opinion piece in 2008 about Barack Obama’s middle name, ‘Hussein.’ She continues to write about Islam today, with one of her most recent op-eds discussing the discriminatory treatment that Tahera Ahmad, the Muslim chaplain from Northwestern University, received on an airplane.
Both Franklin and Hussain agreed the fundamental problem lies in the media unwilling to understand Islam, yet a simple conversation with the right people can change perceptions.They also find it important for Muslims to get involved in journalism.
“When you see a Muslim name on the byline, it makes a difference,” Franklin said.
With an ever-changing landscape, it’s possible to rewrite the narrative and shine a light on the reality of Muslims and Islam in America.